The enrollment decline at Berkeley Unified School District slowed this school year, but the number of students enrolled still fell by 1% from the previous year, part of a trend of students leaving the district that intensified during the pandemic. 

There were 9,073 students enrolled in October 2022, down from 9,177 in October 2021.

Enrollment has trended downward on average 1.8% per year for the last eight years. The number of students fell from a peak of 10,462 in 2015 and began a steeper decline in 2019 that was exacerbated by the pandemic. Between October 2019 and 2020, the district lost 400 students and enrollment fell 4.5%, many of them early elementary students. Enrollment continued to fall in the following two years, though new data show the pace has slowed.

California schools are shrinking as families are moving out of the state. From fall 2021 to 2022, the number of California public school students fell by 0.7%, according to state data released in April. Enrollment at private schools declined at a similar rate. 

Alameda County saw the third largest population decline in the state, in sheer numbers, though the percentage of residents leaving was greater elsewhere.

In BUSD, the biggest declines were in middle school, while the number of kindergarteners rose due to a new and growing statewide transitional kindergarten program. This year, children turning 5 between Sept. 2 and Feb. 1 are eligible to enroll in the program. 

The uptick in transitional kindergarteners masks the full enrollment declines across the state and in Berkeley. The state currently doesn’t differentiate between the two types of kindergarteners, making it difficult to tell how many families took advantage of the new program. In Berkeley Unified, there were 43 more students enrolled in kindergarten this fall, compared with last year. That number is expected to grow over the next five years as more 4-year-olds qualify for transitional kindergarten.

Enrollment at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School and Sylvia Mendez Elementary, the district’s only remaining dual-language immersion school, saw the largest declines. King had 70 fewer students this fall, compared with last year, a 7% decline, and 40 fewer students were enrolled at Sylvia Mendez. 

District officials did not comment on the trend overall or respond to questions about enrollment changes at individual schools.

District’s budget could be in trouble — but not for at least two years

Schools have largely been shielded from the financial impacts of enrollment declines during the pandemic, but a smaller budget could catch up with the district in two years. 

Since the start of the pandemic, California has doled out emergency relief funds to districts. The state also changed its funding formula so that money would be given out based on attendance from prior years, rather than based on attendance during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This school year, Berkeley Unified’s budget was its largest ever, thanks to more funds devoted to education from Gov. Gavin Newsom.

District funds are determined by the average number of students who come to class throughout the year, although a funding formula that uses total enrollment has been up for discussion in the past. Currently, the state provides funding for districts based on a three-year attendance average, which puts districts like Berkeley with declining enrollment in a better financial position. 

At a school board meeting March 8, Pauline Follanabee, who runs the fiscal department for BUSD, called the enrollment decline a “significant reduction from our peak pre-pandemic level.” Next year, Follansbee said she expects the state will also substantially raise the amount of funding to accommodate increases to the cost of living.

That means the real impacts of the declines would likely not be felt in the district coffers next year, she said, calling the 2024-25 school year “a reality check.” 

Featured photo: Students pack the halls at Berkeley High School in August 2022. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

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Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...